by Pete Mazzaccaro
A former math teacher at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy who was fired in September filed suit against the school last week, claiming he was not only fired unfairly but defamed and discriminated against because of his race.
In a complaint against the school filed last week, Arthur “Chuck” Matthews, who taught math and coached softball at Springside Academy (which later merged with Chestnut Hill Academy to form SCH), describes himself as “the token black teacher” at the upper school until another black teacher was hired in 2011.
Matthews’ complaint outlines a series of events in which several text messages he exchanged with a white, female senior who has since graduated, were mischaracterized by school administrators and students to fuel rumors that he had an improper relationship with the student. According to his complaint, the student and her parents did not feel the text messages in question were improper.
Matthews claims there is no policy at the school that prohibits text communications between faculty and students.
Kate Noel, Director of External Affairs at the school, said SCH would not comment on specifics of Matthews’ complaint because it was ongoing litigation.
“While we do not comment on pending litigation, we are wholly committed to fostering an appropriate learning environment for all our students in which faculty plays a vital role,” she said.
SCH has until Monday, Jan. 14, to file a response.
The complaint states that Matthews’ conflict with school officials began in August of 2012 when he was issued a warning and suspended from coaching because of the text messages. Matthews claims that at the time, SCH President Priscilla Sands “demanded that he resign in lieu of being fired.” Matthews refused.
Matthews claims that after his suspension, Sands made an “unprecedented” decision to send letters to the parents of Matthews’ students in which the unsubstantiated claims about his text messages with the student were outlined.
“At the end of the last school year [2011-2012], it was brought to our attention that Mr. Matthews had what might be considered an inappropriate texting conversation with a student (who has since graduated), which is a direct violation of our policy,” Sands wrote. “We investigated the situation, and we concluded that, although the text communications were personal, they were not sexual in nature. Our best judgment was that Mr. Matthews’ communications did not rise to the level that would require termination of his employment.”
Matthews claims that the disclosure of what should have been private information irreparably harmed his reputation and represents a break in school policy based on race.
“By sending the letter to parents of students Mr. Matthews taught math, Sands and SCH irreparably harmed Mr. Matthews’ reputation and discriminated against him because of his race,” reads the complaint.
Although Matthews’ complaint alleges Sands and the school treated him differently because of race, it also suggests that pressure from parents forced the school to fire him.
“After receiving notice from Sands about allegations of inappropriate texting conversations by Mr. Matthews, some parents complained to her that they did not want him to teach their children,” the complaint reads. “Others, rumor has it, particularly the moneyed parents of students, demanded Mr. Matthews’ removal, threatened to send their kids elsewhere, or to remove them from his class. At least one student was withdrawn from Mr. Matthews’ class.”
On Sept. 11, Matthews’ complaint states he was called into another meeting and was asked to resign. When he refused, he was terminated.
Student reaction mixed
Students interviewed by the Local said the school had not addressed Matthews’ firing and that they were left to speculate. Some sympathized with Matthews.
The students all spoke to us on the condition that their names would not be used.
“Everyone was shocked when they found out about why he was being fired,” one student said.
“I think the school made it sound like he was saying things to her that he really wasn’t. So I don’t think they really had a sufficient reason to fire him,” said another. “He was a good dude.”
“I loved Mr. Matthews. He always made jokes but was the first to get everyone in order, too,” said another. “As for what happened to him, I think it’s ridiculous.”
Others said they felt any texting between teachers and students was inappropriate.
“It doesn’t make sense to assume that if he had been white the repercussions would be less harsh, since no matter what race you are, sexual text messages are going to be seen as inappropriate,” a student said.
“I think it’s dumb that he’s making a case about racial discrimination because that had nothing to do with it,” said another.
“I think the whole issue is stupid. A teacher should never text a student. If they want to communicate that’s where the school email comes in. I think he’s suing them because he’s embarrassed,” said another.
“From what I’ve heard of the texts, they were inappropriate whether or not texting students is against school policy,” said another student. “I realize the school may not have had a base of evidence in order to fire Mr. Matthews, and I sympathize with him because I’m sure he’s having difficulty finding a job. However, I don’t think that anything was racially motivated and I think that he should have considered what he was saying more carefully.”
Additional reporting for this story by Brie Sosnov.